Freedom of the Press
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Key Developments in 2016:
- Two radio stations that were banned amid severe civil unrest in 2015 resumed broadcasting after their directors signed an agreement with the National Communications Council (CNC) in February. However, the agreement undermined the outlets’ independence by requiring them to be “balanced and objective,” and to refrain from coverage that could undermine national security.
- In July, Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with the weekly independent newspaper Iwacu, disappeared, reportedly after receiving a phone call from a source within the national intelligence service. His whereabouts remained unknown at year’s end.
- The Burundian Union of Journalists (UBJ), which had called attention to the media crackdown in the country, was banned in October.
- As repression of the media exacerbated self-censorship among journalists, Burundians increasingly turned to social media as a source of news.
Journalists in Burundi face overt hostility from officials, prosecution under repressive laws, and severe intimidation including arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, and physical attacks. The government shut down nearly all private media in 2015 amid severe civil unrest triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term in office, which he won in a disputed election later that year. In October 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that over 100 journalists had fled Burundi since the previous year’s crackdown on media began.
In 2016, the directors of Radio Insanganiro and Rema FM, which were among the private radio stations forced off the air in 2015, signed an agreement with the CNC that allowed them to resume broadcasting. However, the agreement undermined their independence by requiring them to offer “balanced and objective” coverage that did not threaten national security. The CNC, which is widely considered to be controlled by the executive branch, continued to pressure journalists and outlets and to hand down suspensions in 2016. An October CNC communiqué announced a month-long suspension against a program on Radio Insanganiro in connection with its airing of a song titled, in the Kirundi language, “Human Rights for Journalists.” The same document announced a month-long ban against another private station, Buja FM, that had recently changed its name from Radio 10 in an attempt to sidestep pressure from authorities. Finally, the document reminded outlets that they could be prosecuted for employing journalists who had not officially registered with the government. In December, Burundi’s communication minister remarked during a parliament hearing that radio stations operating within official regulations were easily controlled.
Separately, in October, the country’s interior minister banned five civil society groups including the UBJ, which had called attention to the media crackdown in the country.
A number of Burundian and foreign journalists were detained during the year. In January, two French journalists were detained on suspicion of associating with an armed opposition group, but were released without charge after a day in custody. In October, Voice of America (VOA) journalist Fidélité Ishatse was detained for several hours in Bukemba, with authorities saying she had not registered her presence in the town with local authorities. Also in October, police detained a U.S. journalist and her Burundian fixer, who were held overnight; a police spokesperson claimed they had been attempting to “destroy evidence of crimes committed by insurgents.” Journalists are frequently subject to harassment and threats by police and the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing.
In July, Bigirimana of the independent weekly newspaper Iwacu disappeared, and had not resurfaced at year’s end.
All of these factors have contributed to severe and deepening self-censorship among the few independent journalists who continue to operate in Burundi, allowing state-run and government-friendly private outlets—including a new community radio station launched in 2016 by the president of the Senate—to fill the resulting information vacuum. With a dearth of independent voices, many Burundians have turned to WhatsApp as their main source of news, as well as Twitter and Facebook. However, these networks also carry propaganda and unverified reports, and many people lack the technology to access them.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom of the Press 2017. For background information on press freedom in Burundi, see Freedom of the Press 2016.